2 May 2021

Helping to End Oppressive Child Labor in the US – The Photography of Lewis Hine

The 1900 United States Census showed the population of America growing by over 20% since the previous census ten years before. Good news for a still expanding, young country. Yet there was another astonishing figure which appalled many. One in six children aged between five and ten were recorded as being in gainful employment.

May 1910: Bundle boy. St. Louis, Missouri.
Yet there was worse. This number, shocking in itself, represented a massive increase of 50% over a twenty year period in the number of children in this age group who worked, often in appalling conditions. America’s children were working in greater numbers than ever before - 1,752,187 of them all told between the ages of five and ten. With the country seemingly going backwards in its treatment of its children from poorer backgrounds, a group of people decided that something had to be done.

August 1908: A Little "Shaver," Indianapolis Newsboy, 41 inches high. Said he was 6 years old.
Child Labor Committees had already existed in a number of states. A conference between those from New York and Alabama culminated in a mass meeting held at Carnegie Hall on April 25 1904. The National Child Labor Committee can claim the still popular concert hall as its birthplace. It organised at a stunning pace, no doubt with the fact in mind that childhood never lasts long and for many it had never really, certainly as we know it today, existed.

September 1908: Vance, a Trapper Boy, 15 years old. Has trapped for several years in a West Va. Coal mine. $.75 a day for 10 hours work. All he does is to open and shut this door: most of the time he sits here idle, waiting for the cars to come. On account of the intense darkness in the mine, the hieroglyphics on the door were not visible until plate was developed. Location: West Virginia.
Within three years the movement had been chartered with an Act of Congress and was in a position where action and advocacy could be undertaken on a massive, national scale.Or at least that was the hope.

August 1911: Nan de Gallant, 4 Clark St., Eastport, Maine, 9 year old cartoner, Seacoast Canning Co., Factory #2. Packs some with her mother. Mother and two sisters work in factory. One sister has made $7 in one day. During the rush season, the women begin work at 7 a.m., and at times work until midnight. Brother works on boats. The family comes from Perry, Me., just for the summer months. Work is very irregular. Nan is already a spoiled child. Location: Eastport, Maine.
Lewis Hine described Nan de Gallant (above) as a spoiled child yet he did not mean it in our modern sense. A teacher and photographer, he had realized that photography could be used to stimulate discussion and drive social change and reform. He had spent a lot of time in the early 1900s capturing the huddled masses arriving at Ellis Island and when the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) asked him to document children at work in America he left his teaching post to take up this challenging position.

October 1909: Boys picking over garbage on "the Dumps." Boston.
We normally associate photographs of children sifting through garbage with the developing world. Yet this is Boston only just over a hundred years ago. Hine’s work took him all over the United States. His remit was effectively to pluck at the heartstrings of the nation’s middle classes with the end being the creation of federal child labor regulations. State by state attempts to persuade politicians to legislate had not worked terribly well and a new, national approach was now considered the best way to implement reform.

March 1911: Four-year-old Mary, who shucks two pots of oysters a day at Dunbar. Tends the baby when not working. (See photo 2062). The boss said that next year Mary will work steady as the rest of them. The mother is the fastest shucker in the place. Earns $1.50 a day. Works part of the time with her sick baby in her arms. Father works on the dock. Location: Dunbar, Louisiana.
Hine would often find himself confronted by suspicious managers at the factories, mills and mines that he visited and the notes that he took were often hurried, yet they say as much as we may ever know about these otherwise anonymous children. As such I have included Hine's words under the photographs here. He did his job well – today over a hundred years later his photographs still have the capacity to move. Hine grabbed the opportunity to give America a window on to itself and it was one which the country did not like much at all.

January 1909: Young Cigarmakers in Englahardt & Co., Tampa, Florida. There boys looked under 14. Work was slack and youngsters were not being employed much. Labor told me in busy times many small boys and girls are employed. Youngsters all smoke.
Some of the photographs do look somewhat staged – and of course they were. Hine’s remit was, of course, to further the cause of the NCLC. He was hired with the responsibility to capture the working conditions of children but in a way which would stir emotion, encourage action and help determine future legislation.

August 1917: Interior of tobacco shed, Hawthorn Farm. Girls in foreground are 8, 9, and 10 years old. The 10 yr. old makes 50 cents a day. 12 workers on this farm are 8 to 14 years old, and about 15 are over 15 yrs. Location: Hazardville, Connecticut.
Even so, it would take decades for a law to be finally passed on a national level. Finally, in 1938, over thirty years after the NCLC formed, the Fair Labor Standards Act became law. This forbad any interstate commerce of goods made through oppressive child labor. This meant that any child under sixteen could not be employed in any form unless in agriculture or by their relatives. Any young person older than this but under 18 could not be employed in dangerous jobs. To this day, this act is the foremost means by which the rights of American children are put in force and defended.

August 1908: Glass works. Midnight. Location: Indiana
Yet what of Lewis Hine, the photographer who had helped this come about? He spent part of the First World War in Europe documenting the work of the American Red Cross. Afterwards he spent a number of years photographing the American people at work and in 1930 he was hired to record the building of the Empire State Building, often taking great risks to capture the construction process.

December 1910: This little girl like many others in this state is so small she has to stand on a box to reach her machine. She is regularly employed as a knitter in London [i.e., Loudon?] Hosiery Mills. Said she did not know how long she had worked there.  Location: Loudon, Tennessee.
During the Depression of the 1930s Hine returned to work for the American Red Cross and detailed the drought in the southern states. He also worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Works Progress Administration. Yet, surprisingly, the later years of the 1930s was signaled for Hine not (as you might expect) by a celebration of his work but by a growing disinterest among his previous clients to re-employ him.

By 1940 Hine was in ill health. He lost his house and was forced to live off welfare payments. After an operation he died in Dobbs Ferry Hospital on November 3 of the same year. His prints were donated to the Photo League but this ceased to exist in 1951. The prints were then offered to the Museum of Modern Art in New York which, astonishingly, declined to accept them. It seemed that Hines and his work were destined to be forgotten.

September 1913: Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company. Said fifteen years old. Exposed to Red Light dangers. Location: Waco, Texas.
Fortunately George Eastman House did accept them – more than ten thousand prints and negatives all told. Moreover, the American Library of Congress (from which we obtained these remarkable images) retains a collection of over 5,000 of his photographs. Hine’s legacy is ensured and it is still something from which can be drawn insight and illumination in to an uncomfortable part of American history.

November 1910: Little Fannie, 7 years old, 48 inches high, helps sister in Elk Mills. Her sister (in photo) said, "Yes, she he'ps me right smart. Not all day but all she can. Yes, she started with me at six this mornin'." These two belong to a family of 19 children. Location: Fayetteville, Tennessee.

You can see more examples of Hine's work at the Flickr page of the Library of Congress.